Chatting to the neighbours: makes us happier, saves lives, comes to the rescue when we lose our keys

March 20, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Economy 

At about 7.30am last Thursday I heard a tentative knock on my front door.

Standing on my doorstep, shivering in pyjamas and with a look of acute embarrassment on her face, was my new neighbour Carolina* from the studio flat downstairs.  Her bathroom is across the hall from her flat, and she’d managed to lock herself out after going to the toilet without her keys. Critically, she had also managed to lock her keys and phone inside her flat, and was stranded in the stairwell.

I gave her my phone so she could call her office to explain that she’d be late. We have the same landlord so I called him to explain the situation, and invited her inside to wait while he drove a spare key over from Essex. I had to leave for work, but my girlfriend had a day off and so sat with Carolina for the next couple of hours and made her breakfast and tea. They chatted. They got along quite well.

The situation had initially felt  all the more bizarre and awkward given that I’d only moved into the building that weekend, and had met her before this only once, as I was carrying furniture up the stairs on my moving day. I’ve lived in buildings before where I never spoke to – or even saw – my neighbours, but given that I now work on the RSA’s Connected Communities programme I thought I’d make an effort to practice what we preach, and made sure I chatted her when I spotted her. We didn’t speak about anything hugely exciting on that occasion – essentially we told each other our names and said hello – and it didn’t feel particularly important at the time. But how long would she have sat helplessly panicking in the hallway on Thursday if we had not bumped into each other and exchanged small talk earlier that week? Would she have knocked on my front door when she did, or would it have seemed too difficult to inconvenience somebody she had never met before in such an embarrassing situation?

This is partly what the founder of the Big Lunch, Tim Smit, means when he says that ‘Small talk is in fact ‘big talk’ – it’s the code or tool which enables us to overcome our shyness’. The Big Lunch have published research this month that they say shows that ‘the chattiest streets are the happiest streets’, with seven in ten people surveyed saying that simple conversations with their neighbours make them feel more in touch with their community – but with one in twenty reporting that they have never spoken to their neighbours at all. This is worrying because not having these kind of local connections might not just make us less happy – or leave us caught short when we forget our keys – but it can be highly damaging to our health as well.

Last week, the writer Will Storr wrote in the Guardian about his own reluctance to talk to the people around him, and about how he is trying to change this. Contrary to the popular image of British villagers coming together at times of adversity, he recounts being rude to an environment officer and having an argument with a neighbour who wanted to borrow sandbags during the recent flooding in Somerset where he lives. Prompted by these negative interactions he decides to learn more about loneliness and is told by a genome biologist that isolation has a similar mortality risk to smoking , and so he decides to make a conscious attempt at being friendlier to his neighbours:

‘That evening, the man fails to return my sandbags. I wonder if he might have done had I responded to him differently. Worried about the flood, which is now just steps from my door, I walk around the corner to find them being used to corral a stream of water into a bubbling drain. Under the irritated gaze of the affected homeowner, I lug them back, one by one. Then I stop and return. With a smile and an apology, I explain who I am and why I need them. We have a chat. As it turns out, he’s quite nice.’

This friendly small talk between people who live near each other are the kind of interactions that Talk To Me London, a new campaign group in the capital, want to see more of. It’s a simple aim, but we think it’s an important one and that’s why we worked with them to pilot their approach in south east London, and why we’ll be supporting them to raise funds for a city-wide launch on the RSA-curated section on the Kickstarter crowdfunding website. Watch out for that and get updates by following @talktomelondon on Twitter.

When I went back to my flat after work a few evenings ago, Carolina had left a little box of chocolates for my girlfriend and me as a thank you. Where in other places I have lived my neighbours have been strangers, now I have some form of connection with Carolina. We’ll look out for each other now and, who knows, maybe become friends. We might support each other in any future tenancy disputes about the building or the landlord. We might hit some bars to explore our new neighbourhood together. Or we might just keep a spare key for her in case she gets locked out again.


*Not her real name.

International Day of Happiness

March 19, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Recovery, Social Brain 

Mark your calendars – tomorrow is the first International Day of Happiness!

“On this first International Day of Happiness, let us reinforce our commitment to inclusive and sustainable human development and renew our pledge to help others. When we contribute to the common good, we ourselves are enriched. Compassion promotes happiness and will help build the future we want.”  – Ban Ki-Moon

In July last year, the General Assembly of the UN agreed to mark March 20th as a day for celebrating and spreading happiness, and educating ourselves and others about it.  Three key pillars are recognised as being required for global happiness: economic, social, and environmental wellbeing.

           Image from the UN International Day of Happiness website

This Huffington Post article by Randy Taran of Project Happiness provides a great overview of the day, with details of the story behind the UN resolution, suggestions for how to participate on the day, and ways to boost your own happiness.  I encourage you to read the article and explore the numerous hyperlinks she has provided.

We tend to think about wellbeing often in the Social Brain Centre, because along with the critical external variables of economic stability, democracy and environmental sustainability, we believe that our internal habits, attention, and decisions influence our wellbeing as well.

Just yesterday, Emma wrote about achieving a state of ‘flow’ out on the slopes, and the deep satisfaction that comes with such a focus of attention.  Also related to attention, research has shown that those who seek out the positive are more resilient to stress and anxiety, and interestingly, it seems that we can be trained to pay attention in various ways.  Gratitude lists may also be a helpful tool in focusing on the positives in our lives.

In a blog post from earlier this year cheekily entitled The Key to Eternal Happiness, I reposition the want/should conflict and suggest that to help maintain or improve wellbeing, we should try to make things that are good for us in the long run also  fun to do now.  So if it is difficult to motivate yourself to work out at the gym, invite a friend to go with you and focus on the immediate reward of getting the chance to catch up with each other and share a laugh.

Elsewhere in the RSA, the Connected Communities team explores the impact of our social and community networks on our happiness and wellbeing; check out this video about the Social Mirror project to learn more about their important work.  And last night the Whole Person Recovery team hosted an event in Tonbridge, where Andy Gibson of the Mindapples organisation spoke about getting our mental 5-a-day.

What will you do to celebrate the International Day of Happiness and help to spread happiness, joy and peace to others?  The day’s website urges us all to ACT:

A-     Affirm the pledge to bring happiness to others

C-   Cheer ‘happy heroes’ and celebrate their good deeds

T-   Take action!  Make someone happy and spread the word by using the #happyday Twitter hashtag or by posting on the Action for Happiness Facebook page

So start thinking about what you can do to improve the happiness and wellbeing of others around you, and don’t stop after tomorrow!



The key to eternal happiness

February 4, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

I recently came across an interesting blog post on a psychology website, written by Raj Raghunathan.  The title alone, Happiness Now, or Happiness Later?, evokes a series of questions:  Which is better?  Can we choose?  Can’t we have both?

We can have it both, as it turns out.  However, many of the things which bring us happiness now are not the same actions that will bring us happiness later.  This is not at all a new conundrum, and is in some ways similar to the want/should conflict described by economist Max Bazerman and colleagues, which arises when we have competing internal preferences.   I want to eat a big slice of that triple layer chocolate devil’s food cake right now, but should forgo it for my future self’s health and happiness.

But not all behaviour must be either-or.  The Happiness Now or Happiness Later article presented this in an interesting graphic:

      (Image credit)

I have written about the want/should conflict in the past, and more specifically about the use of commitment devices to temper or overcome the urge to do what we want so that we can do what we should.   But when we superimpose the want/should axes onto the happiness now/happiness later graph, it seems to give the whole issue a slightly different feel.

Whereas when looking at the issue as a want/should conflict it seems easier to think of the ‘should’ behaviour as somehow morally superior to the ‘want’ actions, this is altogether less clear to me when framed as a ‘happiness now’ versus ‘happiness later’ question.  In the latter framing, it seems much more obvious that we should seek out those actions that satisfy both – that bring us perpetual happiness you might say. 

While commitment devices can be really helpful to help get from Quadrant 4 (‘want’/‘happiness now’) behaviour to Quadrant 2 (‘should’/‘happiness later’) behaviour, ultimately we should all be seeking out Quadrant 3 behaviour in the first place.

We should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do.  And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too.

We should be wary of rationalising our Q4 behaviour as somehow being able to fall into Q3.  Trying to convince ourselves that junk food will make us better off in the long run is not the answer.  Instead, we might try to shift our Q2 behaviour over to Q3, that is, to make the behaviour we know we should be doing for the benefit of our future-self more enjoyable in the present.  This might be by actually making it more pleasant to do right now, for example with small incremental near-immediate rewards, or perhaps by an attitudinal reframing (“I know I should go jogging for my long term health, but I also really want to go out on that jog today because the sun is shining and I’ll feel great as soon as I’m done…” )

Of course, I don’t know what the key is to eternal happiness.  And writing this blog post has probably thrown up more questions to ask myself than it has provided answers.  But I love charts and graphs, so it is an interesting exercise to connect the want/should conflict with the happiness quadrants.  It may be a new way of looking at what may already be obvious to some: we should be seeking out activities that bring us both short term happiness and long term happiness, those that we both know we should do and that we actually want to do.  And where that is not possible, we can try to reframe those activities that bring us long term happiness as being fun in the short term, too.  Perhaps this is all easier said than done.  I’d love to hear you thoughts.

Opening Minds through Shakespeare

November 16, 2012 by · 6 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

This, believe it or not, is a photograph of a year seven pupil improvising Romeo and Juliet. Even more surprising is that this pupil was one of a group that started this Shakespeare workshop only a few hours earlier professing that they either knew nothing about Shakespeare or that what they did know of him was “boring”.

This was how my day began when I visited Windsor school in Germany last week as part of a partnership project between the RSA and SCE (Service Children’s Education). The aim of the partnership is to support SCE as two of its schools in JHQ Rheindahlen are due to close along with the Garrison. The focus at Windsor school is to teach the students about Shakespeare whilst also helping them to develop competences from the RSA’s Opening Minds framework which they can call upon during this challenging time and in their future lives.

The pupils’ initial reaction to a day of Shakespeare reminded me of the way in which I and many of my peers greeted Shakespeare learning at school. However, the workshop that followed could not have been more different. After watching the Globe’s promotional video Stand Up For Shakespeare, in which celebrities, such as Judi Dench, explain that Shakespeare is to be acted and not read, we followed their cue and began improvising scenes before even glancing at a script.

Following the truly inspirational facilitation of our lead partner, SCE’s Performing Arts Consultant Joy Harris, the students were led through a number of exercises that helped them to break through Shakespeare’s intimidating language and recognise emotions and scenarios that are common to all people of all ages and times: children and adults, Tudor subjects and modern day citizens. By mid-morning the students were leaping around the room, brandishing imaginary knives and reciting lines from the play, unscripted.

With the children’s excitement and imaginations ignited, my role – to introduce competences such as ‘risk taking’ and ‘feelings and reactions’ – was made much simpler. The children were fully engaged and able to relate the discussion to a present experience. They were, for example, able to put themselves in Juliet’s shoes and explore the risks that she took in marrying Romeo and taking the poison, and to debate whether her actions were admirable or plain foolish. Through the prism of the play and an exploration of the motives and emotions of the characters, they were able to develop a deeper understanding of the competences.

All of this is even more astonishing when you consider the uncertainty that these children face. Apart from the fact that they will not be in that school next September, many do not know much else about what the next year holds. It is hard to imagine the implications this has for them personally, as well as for engagement and morale within the classroom. A number of children will not be able to see the project to completion and, for one pupil, this was their last day in the school. Despite this, every child actively participated and the staff and the school’s Head fully supported the unique experience that they were able to gain that day.

I also learned a lot from the visit – and not just that Shakespeare is not as boring as I had remembered. The whole experience was an extremely powerful demonstration of how pupils become more engaged in learning if they are doing rather than just listening. This approach may seem more easily applicable to drama than other subjects, such as Maths, but maybe it is this pigeon-holing that we need to break away from.

As I approach the end of what is sadly my last day at the RSA (as I will be moving to a new role at Cubitt), my visit to Windsor has also helped me to reflect on the amazing experiences that I have gained here and to think about how I will utilise them in my next role. Perhaps, though, it will be twenty years down the line that I will draw on something that I have learnt here, and the people that helped form that learning won’t have any idea of its application. In the face of what could easily be a sad and demoralising year, the teachers at SCE remain passionate about ensuring that their students access unique opportunities that they can reflect on and use in the year and years to come.

In pursuit of happiness

May 10, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Education Matters 

‘Happiness’ is a concept that I seem to be increasingly encountering. It is the subject of a piece of work that my colleagues in Arts and Society are involved with in collaboration with the Happy Museum Project, an initiative that is encouraging UK museums to support transition to well-being and sustainability in our society.

The Happy Museum Project was born from psychological research suggesting that happiness and well-being are not related to material wealth. On the contrary, an emphasis on material wealth has led to a focus on the short term, causing the majority to feel pressure to “keep up” and leading to more unhappiness. Key to a sustainable notion of well-being, according to the Happy Museum Project, is what they call ‘support learning for resilience’, which encourages learning that is curiosity driven, engaging, informal and fun and can build resilience, creativity and resourcefulness.

Of course this is not a wholly new concept. We’re becoming increasingly familiar with research that shows that over a certain comfort threshold, increased wealth doesn’t correlate with general satisfaction, take Bhutan’s Gross National Happiness index, for example, which was developed in the 1970s. Now the UK government has started to focus on the notion of happiness, with the announcement of the National Wellbeing Project in 2010, which will see them attempt to measure how happy Britons are and use the results to shape government policy.

One area where happiness does not seem to have been a central consideration however is in education. Take the new Ofsted framework, which requires inspectors to place emphasis on behaviour, safety and teaching but makes no mention of emotional wellbeing, sociability and support. The aim here may have been to concentrate on the essentials and perhaps the more quantifiable elements, but this only reinforces the lack of regard with which these qualities are held.

Plans for performance related pay for teachers could be taken as another example of overlooking the importance of happiness. Not only is this measure likely to increase pressure on teachers, making them less happy, but their performance is likely to be measured solely on academic results, as it must be, and not well-being. This is not to say that the two will always be unrelated. For example it seems obvious that if a child is taught in a way that is exciting, fun, collaborative and supportive then they will not only be happier but will be more engaged and therefore attain better results. But this policy risks increasing pressure on students to achieve academically, leading to more teaching to the test and so risking children’s well-being.

Additionally some proponents of performance related pay for teachers base their arguments on economics; a good teacher = a good education (good grades) = a good job = more money. Not only in the current climate is this not necessarily the case, as there are not enough good jobs for high achieving students, but if money doesn’t make us happy then we shouldn’t be thinking only about education in these terms.

So I come back to the Happy Museum Project’s central tenet – our culture must focus on the long-term and sustainable benefits of its actions. Whilst achieving good academic results may lead to happiness in the short term, it can no longer guarantee a child’s future well-being in the face of unemployment, recessions and climate change, although perhaps it can help. My point is not to belittle academic achievement, but to emphasise that like so many things, we just cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is that having confidence, emotional stability and resilience, will help this generation of students to survive this uncertainty and to cope better, if not always be happy.

Developing humility by seeing my own blindness

April 26, 2012 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

Nothing in life is as important as you think it is when you are thinking about it” (1)

One may think that this may be a quote by a self-help guru, a Buddhist monk or a philosopher. Actually, I came across it yesterday reading Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman’s latest book. What he means by this is that “any aspect of life to which attention is directed will loom large in a global evaluation” (1).

Daniel Gilbert provides examples how terribly inaccurate people are guessing what will bring them happiness and what will bring misery. Apparently, winning in lottery or getting married brings much less happiness than most people are absolutely certain they will. Also, becoming paraplegic by far does not bring as much misery as we think (2).

It seems that our intuitions constantly magnify the importance of specific aspects of our lives that we are paying attention to. Attention is a bit like magnifying glass: whatever we bring our attention to seems bigger than it actually is.

It is my common experience that when I do a mistake or do not meet some sort of criteria I have set for myself, often I get a feeling suggesting that this is really bad. It feels like this will have a big negative impact on my life even in the total context of my life they are pretty minor things. However, as I continue deepening my practice of mindfulness and as I become more observant of the patterns of my mind, I start noticing things I was not noticing before. I start seeing my own blindness. I notice myself developing an intuitive feeling that tells me when I am blowing things out of proportion again. It’s like a little voice inside me going ‘here you are doing the same again’. After becoming aware of this intuitive impulse, usually I discount whatever my initial reactions of fear or frustration suggest. More often than not, this leads to being more level-headed and making better decisions.

Also, it’s a very humbling experience to see how flawed my perceptions are. This makes it into a lifelong quest of learning more and more when my perceptions can and cannot be trusted.


  1. Kahneman, Daniel (2011). Thinking, Fast & Slow, p. 402
  2. Gilbert, Daniel (2006). Stumbling on Happiness

What’s the best age to be?

April 18, 2012 by · 4 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

I became 35 today, and have the cake and candles to prove it. It therefore felt particularly serendipitous to read the headline in the Guardian: Is 35 really the best age to be?

The claim is not particularly shocking, since 35 appears to offer a mixture of youth and experience. I don’t feel particularly ‘old’, but I am no longer able to call myself ‘young’ without feeling slightly self-conscious. I am not yet approaching middle age, if only because that category now seems to extend well into people’s sixties, and being ‘thirty-something’ does little to inform or inspire. I suppose I am half way to my biblical life expectancy of ‘three score year and ten’, but with fingers crossed for a cure for type-one diabetes and plenty of runs in the park, I hope to be post-biblical in my longevity.

The claim that 35 is the best age to be comes from the insurer Aviva (formerly Norwich Union). It looks like a pretext for talking about when is a good time to get insured or save, and to be honest, it does not appear to present a particularly compelling case:

“It asked more than 2,000 adults from across the age ranges what they thought the best age was to be, and the average came out as 35. While only those aged 45-54 picked that exact age, most groups chose somewhere in the 30s, except 18-24-year-olds who said 27 and those aged 65 and over who said 44.”

You don’t have to be a statistician to sense the limitations of such averaging from self-report measures, and you don’t have to have studied philosophy to wonder on what basis ‘best’ is being judged.

Moreover, previous self-report measures have also indicated that happiness throughout the lifespan is u-shaped, or as the BBC put it, smiled-shaped, and they have similar limitations, while pointing to the opposite result(!) i.e. that life in your thirties and forties is a low point in the life span. Moreover, a previous study by Relate suggests 35 is the age when your mid-life crisis has a good chance of kicking-off in earnest.

Now there’s a cheering thought…

Whatever you think of the empirical evidence(and it doesn’t impress me much) it feels like we are missing something much more fundamental. If you wait for a better life, or long for an age and lifestyle that has already passed, you are almost certain to be unhappy. It may be true that part of wellbeing consists of satisfaction about the past and hopefulness for the future, but the experience of happiness has to be savoured in the present.

The best age ‘to be’, surely, is whatever age you are now.



The Buddhist, the Benthamite and the Biographer

April 12, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Social Brain 

A year ago today(sigh) I was attending the launch of Action for Happiness!  The movement has grown considerably in its first year, and I wish it well. Mark Williamson is the Director of Action for Happiness, which is affiliated to The Young Foundation, but the movement grew out of the vision and motivation of what Jules Evans aptly called The Three Wise Men.

The Buddhist:

Actually I am not sure Geoff Mulgan is really a Buddhist, at least not in the card-carrying sense, but it made a huge impression to learn that his weighty CV (now head of NESTA, but previously CEO of The Young Foundation, Director of Policy for the Blair government, author, Professor etc) is grounded(or so I like to think) by his experience of being a Buddhist monk in Sri-Lanka. I don’t know Geoff Mulgan personally, but it is hard not to be impressed by his track record.

A year ago, his idea of wellbeing seemed quite nuanced to me, and he recognised the importance of experiencing the full range of human emotion(not merely positive) for a life well-lived. I was particularly impressed by his comment that people working in government tend to dehumanise what really matters, for instance they talk of ‘social isolation’ but rarely of ‘lonliness’ and they speak of the importance of ‘social support’, but rarely of ‘friendship’ or ‘love’.

The Benthamite

I am pretty sure that Lord Layard is a Benthamite, although he may not accept the term, and has called himself a ‘democrat’, which might be a less pejorative way of saying the same thing. He has done a great deal of good to promote wellbeing, so I hesitate to express reservations, but whenever I have heard him speak, I found his idea of happiness to be a very conventional and rather uninspiring form of utilitarianism. This is too big a question to explore here, now, but I think enduring wellbeing is much more complex than mere hedonic satisfaction in its various guises.

And I would say he is Benthamite rather than merely utilitarian(his world view is radically different from, say, Peter Singer, who describes himself as a preference utilitarian) if only because in answer to a question posed by Jules Evans at the RSA event Happiness: New Lessons he made it clear that he doesn’t distinguish, as John Stuart Mill famously did, between higher and lower pleasures e.g. the pleasure of writing a poem is no greater than the pleasure of smoking a fag. For Layard, as long as you are not harming others, it really is just a question of ‘whatever makes you happy’, in which happiness is a self-evident experience, captured by self-report measures. It is hard not to respect such an eminent figure, who does so much for the social good, but I don’t find his vision of happiness rings true for me- somehow there is a lack of depth, and no ‘shadow’.

The Biographer

Anthony Seldon is Headmaster of Wellington College, and also a biographer of John Major and Tony Blair (an old friend of mine, Daniel Collings, played a significant role in producing some of this work). He is clearly hugely industrious, but I find he makes me uncomfortable, perhaps because he always seems rather sure of himself. When I heard him speak at last year’s event, I felt he sounded more like a headmaster than a biographer- his pitch was more about telling and admonishing and less about discovering or revealing. At the time I even had the unworthy thought: “You can take the happiness out of the headmaster, but you can’t take the headmaster out of the happiness” and I think that line would sound more positive with respect to being a biographer.

His idea of happiness appears richer than Layard’s, and more spiritually grounded, but still sounds too much to me like an idea that can be encapsulated in the right kind of information and directly taught, rather than something multi-faceted grounded in a range or experiences, relationships and balances.  That said, he has been a trailblazer for wellbeing in schools, and walks the talk in his own school, so on balance I am sure his contribution is a very positive one.

Despite some minor reservations about the founders, I am glad to see that the Action for Happiness movement is alive and well. I hope this is the first of many genuinely happy birthdays.

Wellbeing without art

January 17, 2012 by · 2 Comments
Filed under: Arts and Society, Social Brain 

Wellbeing has become a hot political issue. Now it’s going to be measured, so that the nation’s wellbeing can be tracked along with more traditional economic measures of how society is doing. The Office for National Statistics is in charge of working out how best to measure it, which is no mean feat.

A set of proposed domains has been put together by the ONS and as part of a consultation exercise we all have the opportunity to respond. Yesterday, I received two emails from former colleagues who are heavily involved in arts for wellbeing, drawing attention to the fact that the proposed domains make no mention of the arts or creativity.  This is clearly a huge oversight, and leaves me slightly tempted to make dreadfully judgemental assumptions about the worldview of statisticians, but that would be short-sighted of me.

Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world.

Personally, I’ve always known, in an intuitive, guttural way, that the arts matter. Art is the most important vehicle we have as a society to understand ourselves, our relationships with others and our place in the world. Moments of celebration, bewilderment or desperation often only really make sense and come to take on their full meaning because we can connect to an artistic expression of what’s happening in our lives. Art brings things to the surface that nothing else can, whether it’s being moved to tears by a perfectly played piano, feeling the real meaning of war by looking at a painting, or laughing with liberated abandon when we recognise our own foibles in another’s artistic utterance.

Certainly, art helps us through. But that’s not to say it’s just a luxury. In my view it is a necessity. We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend. At the peak of an impassioned chat about what’s wrong with the world, a good friend of mine once said to me that ‘the true test of everything is the arts’. In these times of multiple crises, we need the arts more than ever, to help us understand problems and come up with solutions. It’s not just about wellbeing, it’s about survival.

We need art in order to pose questions and propose solutions to them, to challenge, protest and defend.

So, of course arts and creativity should be included in the ONS wellbeing domains. But, even assuming enough people say so in the consultation, we need to be clear that these new measures are only ever going to be capable of sketching the vaguest picture of where we are on the wellbeing spectrum.

I quite frequently get my knickers in a twist about the inherent problems of measuring things. If you ask people questions, they answer them, but there are lots of reasons why the answers often don’t really mean much: desirability bias (saying what you think you should say rather than what you really think), suggestivity (ask someone if something is dangerous and you’ve planted the seed that it might be) and reductiveness (with complex things like attitudes, or wellbeing, the answer is often ‘it depends’, which can’t be captured by the bipolar response scales favoured by statisticians).

One of the huge challenges facing the arts is the obsession our society has recently developed with having an evidence base for everything. You can only fund your interactive art workshop for, say, young people in care, if you can prove that it ‘works’, according to one arbitrarily defined ‘outcome measure’ or another. I passionately believe that we should take steps to ensure that the things we do with and for people are effective ways of doing what we’re trying to do, and in that sense I am a firm believer in evidence based practice. But, what constitutes good evidence is a crucial political question. In the case of what ‘counts’ as an indicator of wellbeing, the exclusion of the arts is one example of the injurious ways in which we can easily get it wrong.

What if public policy can never make us happier?

October 18, 2011 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Social Brain 

At the RSA we speak about ‘policy’ quite a lot, and one of the ways we judge our success is the extent to which we think we might be influencing it. Policy matters because of scale. You can write insightful reports until the bulls come home, engage with the public until they are fed up with you, and convince yourself that your innovative work may transform the lives of institutions or individuals, but unless policy makers take note of what you are doing, the reach of your impact will probably be limited.

For instance, we would all like to think that we have a part to play in making people happier. As an individual it is better if you smile, give compliments, be warm and friendly, and gift your time and services, and perhaps you will thereby add some cheer to the world. But those effects will fade, and unless you are blessed with an unusually cheerful disposition, it’s unlikely you’ll be able to keep it up. It’s not that what you do doesn’t matter, but if it’s only you who is doing it, you are unlikely to change the world.

It’s not that what you do doesn’t matter, but if it’s only you who is doing it, you are unlikely to change the world.

Some say that’s small minded, and that social diffusion means that we influence each other at three degrees i.e. how we behave influences our friend’s, friend’s friend. Some say that we therefore never know where our influence ends. That sounds true to me, but in the sense that we really don’t know where our influence ends, not that our influence is necessarily boundless and beneficent. It’s not just that the evidence on the three degree claim is contentious, but as any social network researcher will tell you, it’s extremely hard to track with conviction. There are just too many ‘confounding variables’, God bless them.

I still think we should be as positive as we can without being dishonest to ourselves or others, but without policy, some argue, attempts to make the world happier feel somewhat futile.

Or maybe this is completely wrong-headed, and policy is not the solution at all. Perhaps there is just no solution at that sort of scale. When it comes to improving wellbeing, perhaps policy levers and national measurements are the wrong tools for the right job.

When it comes to improving wellbeing, perhaps policy levers and national measurements are the wrong tools for the right job.

Jules Evans continues his stellar service to the debate on the politics of wellbeing with two recent posts on this matter. The first is that if you begin a series of wellbeing questions by asking about the Government, people are not happy- the very thought of politicians gives them a jaundiced view of their own wellbeing. Secondly, there is virtually no evidence between government policy and subjective wellbeing. It’s not just the well trodden-turf called the easterlin paradox but more tangible paradoxes, like the fact that China has had about 10% growth every year for the last decades, but happiness levels are flat. I like the way Jules highlights the importance of this point in a blog called: Why are national happiness levels always so flat? 

“What do happiness economists expect? Do they think that, if governments pursue the right policies, the public will go from a seven, to an eight, until eventually, after say 30 years, we will all be shouting ‘Ten!’ before ascending in rapture unto heaven? Of course, given such a bounded numerical scale, people are going to say ‘about a seven’, even if their lives have actually got better or worse over time. We forget the bad times, and we also forget the good times. Our daily well-being is probably protected by our forgetfulness and our ability to adapt.”

Are we always going to be ‘oh about seven’? What is going here? I think it’s great that Governments are thinking and talking about wellbeing, but is it conceivable that there is little they can do to influence it?

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